Reading Responsibly

Since I talk a lot about being “responsible readers” of the scriptures, someone recently asked this:

What is it to be a responsible reader of anything? And why is that so important when reading the Bible?

Here is my reply: To be a responsible reader of anything is to read “with respect” (i.e., giving respect to) what I’m reading and not to abuse it. It is possible to abuse anything we read. For example:

  1. When I read my mother’s letters, I don’t read them as I would a newspaper article or a debt collector, even if she is reporting to me about the death of a neighbor or asking me to pay her back the money I borrowed from her. She is my mother, and that weighs heavily on me as I read. But I don’t use her 2 paragraphs of concern for my sister to drive a wedge between my mother and my sister. That would be to use the letter for a purpose it was not intended. That would be irresponsible.
  2. If I am reading poetry, I read it in light of the conventions of poetry, depending on what kind of poetry: English literature? Hebrew Wisdom? But I don’t read poetry as if it were law or history, even if knowing the historical context of the poem or the poet might give me insight.
  3. A Gospel is not the same as a letter; apocalyptic literature (as in parts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation) is not the same as legal literature, nor allegory, etc. Reading these forms of literature without even noticing the difference often leads to some form of abuse.
  4. Talking about “the Bible” as though it is a single book with a single message often leads to abuse. The Bible is actually made up of collections of material gathered from over a thousand years or so. Also, there are many overlapping messages with many, and sometimes varied, specific nuances.

Does this mean that you have to be a scholar to read the Bible? Heaven forbid!

My mother was not a scholar: but she was a hungry student of the Bible and a searcher. Did all of this searching make a difference in her life: how she acted, what she believed, how she treated people? Uh . . . yes. Was she an arrogant, abusive Bible thumper? Hardly! Did she have any of those people as her teachers? You bet she did, but she knew the difference between what they were and what the texts she was reading were calling for. Can a person without “formal training” in the Bible gain value from reading the Bible not knowing any technicalities? Of course, just like an untrained person — with effort and patience — can replace a bathroom floor, plumbing and all (that would be me!). However, we should not be satisfied to live in ignorance. The more we learn about what it is we’re trying to do, the more it can help. To be unwilling to learn and to be insistent upon reading only through our own unevaluated context is to be irresponsible.

Giving respect to Paul as an ancient author, for example 1 Corinthians, means we will at least try to read by sitting in his chair before we’re willing to jump to our own conclusions. For example, we will read what he says about homosexuality or marriage or spiritual gifts or women against the backdrop of his own times and contexts without frothing at the mouth because we may disagree (from our own perspective). Was Paul a bigot or sexist? By 21st century American standards, yes. But then by his standards, most current-day American Christians are ignorant heathens. And when compared to the ancient Jewish philosopher, Philo (who died about the time Paul started writing), and many other ancient writers on women, Paul can be seen as both moderate and as sowing the seeds for liberation of women.

Now here’s the point: As people, we are not naturally responsible readers. We have to be taught. No matter what the subject. The reason is that reading is a very complicated subject. And whether people like to hear this or not, there’s more to reading the Bible than simply “doing what it says.”

The trouble is, when readers don’t care about any of this — and that is precisely what predominates in churches across the country (even though there are exceptions) — this is irresponsible. It undermines the pursuit and existence of genuine Christianity.

Let’s put it this way: countless biblical texts themselves urge, over and over again, familiarity with the scriptures:

    1. “On God’s law he meditates day and night;”
    2. “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things out of your law;”
    3. “Attach them as frontlets for your eyes, put them on door posts, teach them to your children;”
    4. “Go on to maturity, get past the basics;” and
    5. “Jesus opened their minds to the law, the prophets, and the psalms.”

And on it goes.

I don’t mention these things to point out some kind of “command,” as though we have to read scripture because scripture says so. Instead, the point is that from the beginnings, Christianity was very much rooted in written text. So, in Christian terms, the written texts that form the basis of faith are replete with urging to know scripture.

For Christians to tout the Bible as the most important book in the world and then to be aware of it only in vague, generalized, mushy evangelical terms, or not even to care, is irresponsible! Some one can certainly come to faith in Christ having never read a single word. Certainly there are many experiences outside of the written word that can be had that are both valuable and necessary for a person of faith. However, in ancient Christian terms, followers of Christ will not be satisfied living a life apart from scripture. They’ll naturally seek to become “scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven.” Scribes. Readers of written texts. A genuine life of faith and a life in the Holy Spirit will always lead into a life in scripture. Stated another way, the Holy Spirit of God will never lead one away from the Word of God.